Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Dir. Roger Avary
Starring: James van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel

If you ever find yourself uttering the line “I only did her because I’m in love with you!” you know you’ve fucked up. And The Rules of Attraction is full of fucked-up fuck-ups who fuck up their lives over the course of the film. It’s quite impressive, to fuck up quite so badly when you’re not yet 21. 

The film introduces us to the wealthy students of a prestigious east-coast university. This is a place where the student body is privileged and entitled, the sex is drunken, the gays are predatory, every night is a debauched party and everybody is on drugs as a matter of course. We see the story through the eyes of three people in particular – virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), louche gay Paul (Ian Somerhalder from Lost) and the empty “emotional vampire” that is Sean (brother of American Psycho’s Patrick) Bateman (James van der Beek from Dawson’s Creek). At times we even see the same scene from each of their perspectives. And this is right. Because if the film is about anything – other than meaningless sex and the ingesting of vast amounts of narcotics – it is about how everyone is alone in life. 

You can see it in the way the characters talk at cross purposes to each other. They don’t seem to have any friends. Sean meets Victor (Kip Pardue) and Mitch (Thomas Ian Nicholas) socially in a cafĂ©. But they don’t like each other; in fact they seem to despise each other. They have the minimum of small talk. Their relationship is purely transactional. Victor and Mitch want Sean to get them coke; Sean needs money to give his dealer. Ergo they have a mutual interest. Sean and Lara (Jessica Biel) sleep with each other. It is not because they care, it is purely because they are horny and available (well, it is the ‘Dress to Get Screwed’ party!). And in Sean’s case because Lara has told him that her room-mate Lauren, the object of his affections, won’t be coming. So he sleeps with her to imagine he is with Lauren (who of course then walks in on them, prompting the utterance quoted above). But as this episode shows, they may all be alone, but they don’t have to like it. They are all searching for something. In one key scene Lauren and Sean are shown going about their lives separately in split-screen – right up until the moment when they meet. At that point the two separate scenes become one. They have made a connection. In that one moment a spark has been lit. 
2 Become 1
(They need some love like they've never needed love before...)

This is the one attempt that looks like it might work. Paul is trying to find some semblance of intimacy with someone, but he always picks the wrong horses (or, potentially the right horse, but just too soon). He is just too self-centred (he is frustrated by an associate OD’ing because it will make him late for a date). Lara sleeps her way through college. Lauren believes that Victor is her boyfriend. Victor pinballs around Europe bouncing off the random people he encounters, letting them steer him to the next city, the next party, the next drug, but none of them have names. When he returns it becomes apparent that he does not even remember who Lauren is. And there is the poor girl (Theresa Wayman) who sends Sean love letters (letters which he believes are from Lauren). The letters make him feel like a champion, but he has not even noticed the girl who writes them. In the end they all end the film as they started it: alone. Maybe sorrier, unhappier and with a few more illusions shattered, but still fundamentally alone. Lauren tells Sean plainly: “Nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” 

But mainly it is about the drugs and the sex and a cast of generally rather unpleasant characters. Bullingdon Clubbers, the whole lot of them, swanning around with their sports cars and coke habits and lack of empathy with or awareness of other people. These are people who think that faking suicide is a good way to get a reaction from others. They are certainly all raving monomaniacs, and possibly even psychopaths by the dictionary definition of the term. And no surprise – the film was adapted from a novel by Brett Easton Ellis. Sean Bateman is the brother of American Psycho’s Patrick. Try and find a character to care about. Go on, I dare you. 

What probably surprised me the most was the performance of James van der Beek. For the past twelve years I had always referred to him as ‘James van der Chin, from Dawson’s Chin’ – on the belief, I guess, that he had a massive chin. He doesn’t. His chin is hardly noteworthy (though he does have a massive forehead). But I suppose I had written him off as an actor because he found fame on an American teen soap. But his performance here is amazing. He throws all that fluffy teen-heartthrob stuff away to portray a really nasty character. He comes across as a malevolent Frankenstein’s monster: the ‘emotional vampire’ he claims to be, leaching off others to find any kind of humanity at all. His performance encapsulates the film. Both performance and film are interesting, but not particularly enjoyable.

What have I learnt about New Hampshire?
Firstly, a caveat. The great state of New Hampshire is not mentioned once in the film. All one knows of the location of the fictional Camden College is that it is somewhere in the north-east of the US, not a million miles away from New York. It is only in the novels of The Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero that Ellis specifies that Camden is in NH. 

That being noted we can ask ourselves the question Why New Hampshire? Ellis went to Bennington College in neighbouring Vermont, and says that Camden is built upon fragments of his own college days. So we can assume that both states have colleges that cater for over-privileged brats. We do not get much sense of a surrounding town – it is a campus university. There is a clear town and gown divide, with the townsfolk believing that the students are all rich (not a bad assumption as it turns out). University life revolves around social events: the Edge of the World Party, the End of the World Party, the Dress to get Screwed Party. Even a Pre-Saturday Night Party Party. This procession of parties marks the change in the academic year just as surely as the change from warm summer nights to golden Fall to a snow-bound winter. 

Can we go there?
As stated above, Camden was based upon Brett Easton Ellis’s own college days at Bennington in Vermont – the Commons Lawn at Bennington is known as “the end of the world”. None of the filming was done in either Vermont or New Hampshire. California’s University of Redlands, halfway between LA and Palm Springs, provided the backdrop for Camden College. The Bekins, Grossmont and Fairmont dorms were used for filming.

Kip Pardue, as Victor, was lucky enough to get a whirlwind tour of London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, Florence, Rome and Dublin out of his part. Well done him!

Overall Rating: 2/5

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